Michigan epidemiologist says where she contracted omicron variant is no mystery

Posted at 8:55 PM, Dec 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-17 21:03:12-05

SOUTHFIELD, Mich. (WXYZ) — Dr. Debra Furr-Holden knows more than most people do when it comes to COVID-19 and that's why her own case of the virus may be eye-opening to even those who are considered fully vaccinated.

Furr-Holden is an epidemiologist at Michigan State University, where she is also a professor and associate dean of public health integration. She also sits on the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities.

The doctor, who lives in Genesee County, was also fully vaccinated when she attended a wedding in Wisconsin the Saturday after Thanksgiving. And she felt comfortable going because the bride and groom made vaccination a requirement for attendance.

"In my mind, I thought we did all the right things up front," Furr-Holden told 7 Action News on Friday. "People got vaccinated. People, who could, were boosted."

The many physicians who attended the wedding who have high risk of exposure to COVID-19 received negative test results right before the wedding. And just about everyone was wearing a mask at the wedding.

But then came the reception where there was dancing and drinking. That's when Furr-Holden said the masks came off.

"At some point, I looked around and most of the people in the reception were not wearing masks," she said.

There came a moment in the evening when Furr-Holden said she held her camera up to pan the reception area and it was when she was looking at that video that she realized just how many people were present and unmasked. She put her mask on and then left the reception, thinking that was a wise move but still figuring that they were all safe since they'd been fully vaccinated.

But all it took was one vaccinated but infected person, she said.

"And if you look at even the CDC guidelines and recommendations, it would imply that we could all be together unmasked. But, in fact, that doesn't honor how spread is occurring and the fact that so many cases now are among the people who are vaccinated," Furr-Holden said.

Two nights after the reception, Furr-Holden had a scratchy throat and she didn't think much of it.

"And then on Tuesday, when I woke up, it was worse," she said.

Furr-Holden went to get a COVID-19 test but the location had run out of tests. Then Wednesday came and she decided to go get tested at a community clinic.

"At the same time, I got a text from the bride saying that some people from the wedding had tested positive and to go get tested if I had any symptoms."

Furr-Holden tested positive for COVID-19 and alerted her children, who are young adults, to get tested, quarantine and monitor themselves for any symptoms.

One of her daughters also tested positive. And further testing showed they had been infected with the omicron variant.

"I gave my oldest daughter COVID," Furr-Holden said. "She had not left the house in almost two weeks. One-hundred percent I gave my daughter COVID."

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Dr. Justin Skrzynski from Beaumont Health said that while the majority of the patients they're treating now are infected with the highly transmissible delta variant that can cause more severe illness, a surge of omicron is coming.

"It's just a big storm on the horizon," Skrzynski said. "Right now, we have no idea when it's going to hit."

Skrzynski said they are seeing some breakthrough cases, those who are vaccinated still contracting COVID-19, but he said 75% to 80% of COVID-19 patients throughout the Beaumont Health System were not vaccinated.

"The majority of those breakthrough cases are either elderly, chronically ill, immune compromised. So, it's not your healthy person who's been fully vaccinated, coming with severe COVID," Skrzynski said.

Given that several other people who attended the wedding tested positive for COVID-19 and the omicron variant, Furr-Holden said she has no doubt that she was infected when she removed her mask.

To avoid putting herself at risk, she said that would have meant she just had to stay masked and not eat or drink, or stay home.

Furr-Holden said while omicron seems to result in less severe symptoms for those infected with that variant, it's a gamble that is not worth the risk, and not getting infected in the first place is the key to staying safe.

"This notion that we'd be better off with omicron because it has milder symptoms only holds true if it doesn't mutate and then cause more severe symptoms," she said.

"The real cautionary tale here is all it would take is for the omicron variant to have additional mutations that change the severeness of illness and then we could really have trouble. Something that spreads substantially faster and easier that also causes more death and disability. So our big goal is to put public health first and prevent spread in the first place."